Four Downs — The Offensive Line (spring edition)

With three starters returning, the O-line has some questions

Published: March 17 2014 | 4:01 pm - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 9:43 am in

QUICK LOOK BACK: The Hawkeyes' O-line were a focal point for the offense last season. The unit was the push for an offense that rushed (556) more than it had in 15 seasons under Kirk Ferentz. The Hawkeyes pushed the pace and ran more plays than they've ever had under Ferentz (931).

The Hawkeyes also ran the ball well, rushing for 2,338 yards, the third most in the KF era. They also allowed just 15 sacks, the second fewest in the Ferentz year (12 in 2002).

Left tackle Brandon Scherff was a first-team all-Big Ten pick in '13. He picked up where he left off after a broken fibula and dislocated ankle sidelined him for the final five games of 2012. He announced in December that he planned to return to the Hawkeyes instead of declaring for the NFL draft. There was much rejoicing in Iowa City.

"I think moving forward there is a really good opportunity to get some players that can fortify that position [offensive tackle] here in the year coming and recruiting, so I'm not panicking," Ferentz said. "Also, I've seen enough behind the scenes to feel like we're going to be okay.

"He didn't get any stars, but the biggest recruit we got was Brandon Scherff. Christmas came early this year. It was the best thing that happened in the recruiting season, with all due respect to the guys who are joining us next year."

Austin Blythe moved from guard to center and earned all-conference honorable mention. Of the returnees, Scherff and Blythe are the most noteworthy and only ones who were fixtures in the lineup.

FOURTH DOWN — CRITICAL QUESTIONS: What's up at guard?

Jordan Walsh is considered a returning starter. He did start all 13 games last season, but he also was in and out of games, with Andrew Donnal replacing him on a regular basis. When asked about Iowa's toughest blockers last season, former Iowa LB James Morris mentioned Scherff (6-5, 315)  and Walsh (6-2, 290). In '14, Walsh it would help Iowa greatly if Walsh could hold and regularly fill on the the guard spots.

Donnal could win the guard spot opposite Walsh. One name to watch here is redshirt freshman Sean Welsh (6-3, 285). He made the road trip to Iowa State last fall and positioned himself just off the depth chart. He did have a knee injury at some point in camp that slowed him some during the season. Another name is Eric Simmons. He's now a 6-2, 295-pound junior.

The tackle opposite Scherff?

That could be Donnal, who, at 6-7, 305, might be made for tackle more so than guard. Last spring, OL coach Brian Ferentz said of Donnal: “He’ll be in the mix at the guard position and the tackle position. But we need to have depth there. We need to have depth inside. We need to have depth outside.” And, so, Donnal was a depth guy last season. Maybe he shakes that off this year.

Sophomore Ryan Ward (6-5, 290) should also contend for right tackle. He didn't see much playing time in '13 as a backup tackle. Redshirt freshman Ike Boettger (6-5, 267) is a tackle. He made the transition from tight end last fall and played quarterback/TE at Cedar Falls High School.

Is that it for tackle? What's up with tackle depth?

There isn't much depth here. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis acknowledged that during bowl prep. Of the 11 linemen on scholarship this spring, Scherff is the only one with extensive experience. Donnal has had moments at the spot. Ward had some minor mop-up duty last year. Walk-on Cole Croston (6-5, 250) has been in the two deeps. Incoming freshman Lucas LeGrand and Keegan Render will join the group this fall.

“The offensive line isn’t as deep as it needs to be,” Davis said. “Offensive tackles, we’re still not where we need to be there. I feel like we’re pretty solid inside . . . but those tackles are hard [to find]. I don’t know that you ever have enough of them.”

Obviously, offensive line is the biggest position group on the field. When Davis came in, he immediately identified WR as a position of need. Last fall, Iowa suffered an injury at corner in the first game and needed to thrust true freshman Desmond King into the starting lineup. So, the 2014 recruiting class included four potential corners.

Ferentz hinted at help coming during his signing day news conference. Since then, Iowa has secured commitments from Landan and Levi Paulsen, twin brothers from Woodbury Central High School who happen to be 6-6 tackle prospects (rated three-star recruits by Rivals).

THIRD DOWN — ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: In the summer of 2008, Iowa lost West Des Valley offensive tackle David Barrent to Michigan State. Three days later, Iowa offered Brett Van Sloten from Decorah. Barrent, whose career ended after a back injury, had offers from 10 major colleges. Van Sloten had no offers. Three days after Barrent de-committed, Iowa offered Van Sloten.

Fast forward, Van Sloten will graduate after starter at right tackle for two seasons.

“With him [Van Sloten], it was more about intangibles than anything else,” Ferentz said.

“At Iowa, you need to keep an open mind,” Ferentz said. “It’s more about mentality and personality and perseverance.  You have to have requisite skill and ability, but the mental part is more important because it’s a hard race to run. It’s not for everybody.”

Conor Boffeli also was a senior in 2013. He started the end of 2012 and all last season at guard. Boffeli was a West Des Moines Valley grad who initially committed to Iowa State before de-committing to Iowa.

Iowa signed LeGrand and Render in this '14 recruiting class. The pattern here is Iowans. LeGrand is from Dubuque Senior and Render is from Indianola.

Rivals midwest recruiting analyst Josh Helmholdt on LeGrand: "He could come in and just end up being depth or he could get a fire lit under his rear-end and turn out to be one of those great Iowa offensive linemen that they produce on a regular basis. He has that ability, and I don’t think we’ve seen the best he has to offer. It’s tough to measure his ceiling."

And on Render: "When I saw him live, I was underwhelmed because he wasn’t factoring into the game the way you’d expect a Division I-caliber player to do. He’s very strong, but not an outstanding athlete.”

Waukee O-lineman Ross Reynolds has a scholarship waiting for him at Iowa. Right now, it's a grayshirt for the 6-2, 290-pounder, meaning he'll go on scholarship in January 2015. If a spot opens up, he could end up in camp this fall.

SECOND DOWN — BATTLES BREWING: You can rope off left tackle. Scherff will return this fall and will be an insured athlete. He has said he will take out an insurance policy. Private companies and the NCAA offer policies. For football players, the average policy cost is $7,800 to $15,000 per $1 million insured.

How much trouble would Iowa have been in if Scherff didn't decide to return? Let's not even entertain that hypothetical.

Right tackle should be a competition between Donnal and Ward. Donnal has experience. He started a couple of games in '12 before suffering a torn ACL. Donnal's versatility might help him find his way to a starting spot.

"How do we put the five best on the field?" OL coach Brian Ferentz said last spring. "And that’s why guys like Andrew, he played left tackle on Sunday [in Des Moines last spring], he played left guard in practice, he’s played right guard in practice, he’s played right tackle in practice and he’ll continue to do all four of those things. Just like everybody that was playing the spots they were playing on Sunday, they move around a little bit and play some other spots, too. That’s always the thought.  That’s why you do things like that.”

Ward played tackle last season, even though that meant limited opportunities. You thought maybe he could break in at guard -- as Bryan Bulaga and Riley Reiff did -- but he stayed at tackle and now we'll see if he can win a job.

Walsh should have one guard spot nailed down. The other could be Donnal, could be Welsh or a wildcard, say Simmons. One name to remember: Boone Myers. The 6-5, 285-pounder from Webster City remains a walk-on, but has made requisite strides in the weightroom and might show up on the two deep this fall.

FIRST DOWN — SPRING AND BEYOND: Iowa will have to consider how it can balance its rush attack. The temptation will be to run to the left -- behind Scherff -- as much as the Hawkeyes can get away with it.

Last fall, running back Mark Weisman took 40 percent of his carries left. That was power behind power and on power. And it worked, usually, for something. Iowa avoided null downs. When the Hawkeyes fall behind schedule on offense, it usually doesn't catch up.

-- So, there's a premium on finding a right tackle who can run block somewhere near the level of Scherff.

-- Look for Walsh to steady in his second season in the lineup. He struggled against top-flight DTs last season. Another year in the weight room should bring more confidence.

-- Iowa finished sixth in the Big Ten in rush offense last season, improving from 12th in 2012. Still, the only season Iowa finished in the upper-third of the B1G in the last seven years was 2008, when Shonn Greene set the school season rushing record (1,850). Iowa in the last seven years in rushing yards in the B1G has gone 6th, 12, 12, 8th, 10th, 4th and 10th. Those numbers certainly go against perception. (And, of course, this can be attributed to the attrition Iowa has seen at RB, which didn't happen last season).

-- With three returning starters, Iowa's O-line should again be the power plant. Iowa faces just one of the B1G's top six rush defenses from 2013 (Wisconsin, which has to replace six defenders in the front seven). In turn, the Hawkeyes face five of the bottom six rush defenses (Nebraska, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois).

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